The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a coalition of mainly developed nations recently released results of its most recent study, and the news was not good news. The research focused on people ages 16 to 65 in 24 countries and focused on three crucial areas: literacy — the ability to understand and respond to written material; numeracy — the ability to use numerical and mathematical concepts; and problem solving — the ability to interpret and analyze information using computers.
Americans were comparatively weak-to-poor in all three areas compared to many other countries.
So let the finger pointing begin.
The Bush years can be blamed for"No Child Left Behind" which is one of the major contributing factors to the loss of critical thinking and analytical skills. That, coupled with a corporatized, "students are customers" model promoted by overpaid and inflated administrations, a lack of parental support for ensuring that their kids are educated in broad and multi-dimensional curricula, and the utter failure of public policy at the local, state, and federal level in valuing and promoting education have all created this perfect storm.
And there is an even more troubling component to all of this: a cultural devolving that champions the glorification of "easy" money; the denigration of hard work, discipline, and creative ideas; the contempt for factual accuracy, critical thinking, and humanistic learning. We see this lowering of standards in almost every communication medium and political campaign. These perspectives weaken the very fabric of our lives, and the future is grim for coming generations if we cannot recognize the downward spiral and find a way to stop it. Our children do not have the luxury of self-indulgence with monsters like war and terror, disease, poverty, famine, and the sustainability of the planet breaking down the doors to our complacent kingdom.
So there is no magic bullet to fix everything that is broken just as there is no one root cause that is to blame for it all. It is complicated.
But one thing is for sure. We need to rethink the way we think about education.
Linda Mitchell of Kansas writes, ”We need more people who are educated in science and math in order to address the job needs of the present and the future, but we need--perhaps even more--dedicated educators and professionals in reading, literacy, humanities, and the arts who train and collaborate with those scientists and technologists in the kinds of intellectual skills everyone needs to assess and evaluate the benighted ideas and fear-mongering that goes for "public" policy and public "debate" these days.”
During my son’s undergraduate years at St. John’s College, I developed a true respect for a quality liberal arts education. As an educator with 30+ years of teaching experience in public and most recently in private schools, becoming part of St. John’s College in any capacity would be the realization of all my personal dreams. Every aspect of academia resonating throughout the campus is nothing short of idyllic. I picture myself strolling by the koi pond, breathing in the crisp autumn pinon, passing the amber glow of lamps burning in adobe walled dorms while making my way to a recital in the great hall. This is the stuff that dreams are made of…if you possess the heart and soul of a teacher.
Aside from my Utopian fantasies, there was a greater “take away.” Something transformational was happening there. These students were learning how to think, not what to think! What an immeasurable difference. The kinds of problem solvers for the myriad of sobering challenges of the future cannot be generic standardized test takers and yes men. They must be independent thinkers who can function outside the box with creativity and insight. They must have vision that is crushed by current policies and paradigms.
I have seen far too many teachers approach their classrooms armed with nothing but a textbook and the accompanying pre-fab worksheets and objective tests. My eight year old grand-daughter could teach that way: read a chapter, do a sheet, take a quiz, repeat. There are some teachers who make writing neatly in cursive a priority above content and the cognitive processes that must accompany it. Others swear that spelling lists and spelling tests are a top necessity above all else. It is not their fault if they have outdated, ineffectual tools. With recent budget cuts, there are shrinking funds for training and materials including technology. If teachers can't help students develop the literacy skills to soar and the math and science skills to be competitive in a rapidly changing global scene, then we are going straight to "the bad place" without the proverbial hand-basket.
Wake up, America. The time for denial is over. It’s time to find new ways to guide students to higher ground.